I have been using a set of rules for a while that I have never reviewed before. Not sure why I have not reviewed them. Maybe because they are pretty obscure and are relatively hard to get. Maybe because they will not be everyone's cup of tea. I think they have some interesting ideas, which is why I decided to finally review them.
What is it all about?Chris Engle of Engle Matrix Games and Hamster Press has been around the gaming world for awhile. If you have ever heard of matrix games, you were probably reading about one of Chris Engle's games. But these rules are not matrix games. Rather, they are the rules that Chris used to fight out the battles that resulted from playing his military campaigns run as matrix games. Here is the history from Chris:
Starting in the late 1980's I began running military campaign games at conventions using a Matrix Game. This allowed players to run whole wars, with a minimum of rules, in under four hours, battles included! Because of this I had to develop miniatures battle rules that would allow players to play a small battle in five minutes and a large battle in fifteen or twenty minutes. A hard standard to meet, but the result is the game presented here.So, if you are not playing a campaign game, why would you want a set of miniatures battle rules that play the games out in 20 minutes? Well, perhaps one of the reasons why I have not played many campaign games is because the battles themselves take so long to complete that players lose interest well before the campaign completes. In the last two campaigns I played – both using Memoir 44 – it took us at least three gaming sessions of about four hours each to complete each one (and these were published campaigns). There were at least four campaigns in each of the books – so about eight campaigns – and we never even got to the other six because of fatigue.
But that is not why I bought the rules. I saw a copy in some random hobby shop while I was traveling for business somewhere. What caught my eye was the subtitle on the rules: "a diceless battle game for miniatures". The first copy I purchased was Fusilier, which is the third in the Strategic Spectrum Series, and covers the Horse and Musket era. (If you see this title online be careful, as there are several other rules out there with the same name. The odds are great that it is not this game unless it says the author is Chris Engle.)
The first miniatures game I purchased that had diceless combat was The Compleat Brigadier. No one liked them but me. It had you writing order and there was that whole "diceless" thing. Everyone wants to roll dice. There is the physicality of the process and the suspense. But I feel that with some games the rules author clearly weren't paying attention in a couple of their math classes when they were kids. Some of the variations are wild. Some don't roll enough dice in order to try and smooth out the die rolls, resulting in games that are simply die rolling contests. Generally speaking, if you don't roll dice, you pretty much have to have your math correct (or at least, reasonable). So I wanted to check out Chris' ideas and see how he made it work, if at all. Here is some of Chris' rationale for going diceless:
At first I tried to make a game like other miniatures games, with dice and tables. They were not fast enough. It appears that the fastest a dice game can get is thirty minutes, not fast enough. For a long time I could not think of what to do. The it hit me. Why do I need dice? In most games it is pretty obvious who is going to win a fight without rolling a die. I began experimenting and found it works! Not only that but it produces a very fun game that has all of the subtleties of chess while looking pretty as a wargame.This made sense to me. Why? Because about five years earlier I had come to the same conclusion with role-playing games. Think about it. You are the Game Master and you have built this adventure. You have put in all of these goodies and thought up a story line. Honestly, the last thing you want to have happen is either:
- The players run into some enemy group (or worse, a random wandering monster) that was only supposed to be a speed bump, but due to a series of unfortunate events ends up trashing the party.
- The players run into something you don't want them to fight (maybe it is the entrance to the next adventure, which you have not completed yet) and after a series of extremely lucky rolls end up trashing your monsters. They then open the door you did not want them to open yet and say "Okay, what next?"
When it comes to warfare, Chess follows the same mantra. If you can maneuver a piece to a specific position, you automatically take the opposing piece. The combat is a foregone conclusion, so why dice for it?
Fusilier, et al essentially provides a set of conditions that define when an attacking unit forces the defending unit to retreat. Units are destroyed when they retreat into a "killing ground", which is essentially into a friendly or enemy unit or into new terrain. The battle is one of maneuvering units to make conclusive attacks that drive the enemy into killing grounds, destroying them. When enough units are destroyed, the army breaks.
In Fusilier, et al each army is 10 bases strong and has three ratings: Movement, Attack, and Break Point. The Movement rating determines the number of units or groups that may move in a single turn. The Attack rating determines the number of attacks, on single enemy units, that the army may make in a single turn. Finally, the Break Point is the number of units that the army may lose before it breaks in morale. A typical army has a Movement of 2, Attack of 2, and Break Point of 2 (i.e. 20% losses). These numbers may seem really low, but it actually forces the player to focus on only those attacks where they can win, and win strongly.
As a note, the Attack and Break Point ratings are defined as:
- Bad troops, poorly led, trained, or equipped.
- Average troops, neither inspired nor cowardly.
- Good troops, we armed, trained, and led.
- Inspired troops, exceptionally led and trained.
- God-like troops who are destined by God to win an empire.
MovementThe rules Jabberywocky, Ritter, and Fusilier all use free, measured movement; Ein Ritter Spiel was written with a square grid in mind. All use essentially the same system: each unit is a single base and all bases are a standard width. Any grids are one base width in size. Infantry move one base width and cavalry moves two base widths. When units retreat light infantry retreat two base widths, heavy infantry one, and cavalry two. Special units (elephants, monsters in Jabberwocky, heroes, etc.) use some variation of the infantry and cavalry rules.
Maneuvering is where a lot of the differences are in the units. Light Infantry units are the most maneuverable, by far, with everyone else fairly limited to how they can move. Given that this is a game of maneuver, this is the section of the rules that players have to place the most attention. Once you get into a bad position, it is very hard to maneuver out of it.
The Movement rating of the army indicates the number of units or groups that can move. This is very similar to movement in De Bellis Antiquitatus (DBA). If units are grouped together (bases touching and all facing the same direction) then moving that group only uses one Movement point (like a Command PIP in DBA). So grouping units together is very important and as time and the effects of combat and terrain come into play, your forces will fragment into smaller groups, therefore limiting how many units can move each turn.
Terrain has little effect on movement. No "1/2 movement" or -3" type stuff here. You can either move through it or you cannot. I can see adding some extra rules, however, like woods and towns breaking formation, but currently the rules have none.
CombatCombat is conducted by indicating a unit that is attacking and the units supporting the attack, and the unit being attacked. The players then go down a list of combat results, finding the situation that matches the condition of the attack, and read the combat results (which are almost always "are defeated"). Now I cannot give you the whole combat results lists – that is the intellectual property of Chris Engle and why you buy the game after all – but I can give you a sense of it.
- Missile unit with two unopposed supporting missile units defeat everyone.
In order to count as "unopposed" the supporting unit cannot be adjacent to an enemy unit other than the target. I had (incorrectly) taken it to mean that a unit would also be opposed if opposite an unengaged enemy missile when using missile combat, and quite liked it that way.
The list of combat results is in a specific order, ranking from most likely to least. For example:
- All troops defeat troops attacked in the rear or flank.
- All troops defeat civilians.
All of the combat results lists are pretty much the same from rule set to rule set; each just provide variations based on the period and genre reflected by the rules. For example, Jabberwocky is a high medieval fantasy rule set so it has to have rules for Monsters, Heroes, Wizards, magic, and flying creatures. Those sorts of rules, however, would not be in Fusilier, which is set in the Horse and Musket era. Those rules, however, would have rules about arquebuses, musketeers (with and without bayonets), and artillery, which Ritter, set in the ancient and medieval times, would not.
All in all the combat works pretty well and you get the hang of the order in the list, so often you don't even need to reference it except in special circumstances. Generally speaking, if your attack has support you will defeat the enemy; if not, it is sort of a rock-paper-scissors drill as to which unit types defeat which enemy under what circumstances.
There are also a number of optional rules, including those who cannot do without their dice. (Throw 2D6 and a '12' means the loser of the combat becomes the winner, a '2' means the combat was a draw, anything else means the results as indicated stand.)
Game RatingsSo, using the review system from before, here are the game ratings for Fusilier, et al.
Drama – do the rules create tension during play?
Not rolling dice does remove some of the drama. Nonetheless, the lack of dice does not remove drama entirely. Chess games can be exciting as they go back and forth. Where the drama comes into play is when your opponent carries out unexpected moves, especially ones that you did not see coming.
These rules rate 3 out of 5 in Drama.
Uncertainty – are there enough elements that introduce uncertainty into the game?
The one thing about deterministic combat is that it squeezes uncertainty out of the game. Uncertainty largely comes from your opponent, and how he uses his army, rather than from dice or other elements of chance. That said, two games exactly the same will not play out exactly the same way because each player's decisions are meaningful. Games with these rules does lower the noise of combats that play no significant role, it discounts them completely. These rules cut to the heart of the action. It is up to the players to find out where that heart is.
These rules rate 2 out of 5 in Uncertainty.
Engaging – do the rules allow the player to make meaningful decisions that lead to consequences?
The very elements that lowers the uncertainty in these rules are what makes them engaging. Just like in DBA which elements you use determines where the fight will be and who has the advantage. Moving units that never make it into the fight are essentially a waste of precious resources. Attacks that don't lead to units being driven into killing grounds are usually also a waste although sometimes it spoils your opponent's attack. But is that a good use? Those sort of decisions – how to use scarce resources (Movement and Attack points) – is what determines who wins.
These rules rate 5 out of 5 in Engaging.
Unobtrusiveness – do the rules get in the way?
The rules are very simple; not even a dozen half-size pages. Most of the information consists of diagrams so that you understand the terms used in the combat results list, like "support", "unopposed", "solid line", "flank", and "rear". Also, there are a number of pages of advanced and optional rules, along with a number of army lists for the period that the rule book covers. All of this is pretty simple to remember as there are very few exceptions to rules.
These rules rate 5 out of 5 in Unobtrusiveness.
Heads Up – are the rules playable without frequent reference to a quick reference sheet?
The quick reference consists of one thing: the combat results list. Most games will use only a few unit types. For example, Napoleonic armies will largely consist of Heavy Infantry, Light Infantry, Cavalry, Heavy Cavalry, and Artillery. So you can ignore the rules on arquebuses, pikes, non-bayonet armed muskets, bows, elephants, warbands, etc. What I often do is produce a shortened combat results list that contains only those results that apply to the unit types I am using that game.
Memorization of the basic combat results list is thus pretty easy. After that you will only need to reference it for odd situations, like attacking defensive works or units in terrain, and perhaps some cavalry battles. But pretty rarely. If you attack in force (2:1 or especially 3:1 odds) there is little reason to refer to the card.
The only reason it does not score a 5 is that some maneuvers are not allowed to certain unit types, so unless you play with them a lot, remembering whether a Knight unit can turn in place or must wheel, etc. can require looking up at least once a game.
These rules rate 4 out of 5 in Heads Up.
Appropriately Flavored – do the rules 'feel' like they represent the period or genre being played?
Each book represents a specific period or genre. Jabberwocky covers high medieval fantasy, Ritter covers ancients through medieval, Fusilier covers from the Renaissance through percussion muskets, and Ein Ritter Spiel covers all the other rules except Jabberwocky, but in less detail. The differences in each book represents the flavor of that period or genre. Given that the rules are on the simpler side, they naturally are not going to get deep into that period's feel, but they do a pretty good job nonetheless.
Differences are largely defining different unit types and specifying their maneuver and fighting capabilities. Jabberwocky goes further by defining magic spells for the wizards to cast, for example. In all cases the primary flavor is contained in the army lists. These lists define what unit types and proportions make up each army, plus the army's stats for Movement, Attacks, and Break Point.
These rules rate 3 out of 5 in Appropriately Flavored.
Scalable – can the rules be scaled up or down – in terms of figures or number of units played – from a 'normal' game?
Jabberwocky and Ritter have optional rules for five and twenty unit games, but curiously Fusilier and Ein Ritter Spiel dropped them. All the rules have a points system. So the concept of larger and smaller games is there, but the rules are pretty basic. Then again, the same was true with DBA, yet Big Battle DBA and Giant DBA are very successful, so there is no reason why this cannot scale up and down.
Further, my next test is going to be using a Command & Colors: Napoleonics scenario (Auerstadt 1806) to try out a Fusilier/Ein Ritter Spiel fusion. I will use the units indicated in the scenario one-for-one and figure out if I should adjust the Movement, Attack, and Break Point any.
Given that the Movement, Attack, and Break Point values are bound to the size of the army, as is its composition, I give the Scalability rating an average score.
These rules rate 3 out of 5 in Scalable.
Lacks Fiddly Geometry – do the rules require fiddly measurements or angles?
One base width tends to be a small distance. Small distances tend to lead to fiddliness. The angles are either 45º or 180º, so that is not too bad. The problem lies with units contacting terrain or units during retreat. I could see that being a fraction of an inch away could lead to some discussions. Grids get rid of all those problems, so Ein Ritter Spiel gets a bonus. All of the rules state that rules lawyers and people who care too much about winning probably should not be playing these rules. Fiddly geometry is one of the reasons why.
These rules rate 3 out of 5 in Fiddly Geometry. Ein Ritter Spiel rates 4 out of 5.
Tournament Tight™ Rules – are the rules clear and comprehensive, or do the players need to 'fill in the blanks'?
Let me start by saying that my preference is towards tighter rules, where everything is spelled out clearly by the author, not looser rules where the author leaves certain mechanics up to the individual players, gentlemen's agreements, and a roll of the die where agreements cannot be found. So a high value means 'tight' and a low value means 'loose'. If you like looser rules, subtract my rating from '6' and that would probably be your rating!
The earlier rule sets clearly suffer from less clear diagrams and structure. Ein Ritter Spiel clearly shows that questions and clarifications over the years have made their way into this set. Because these rules were meant to be used for working out the battles of campaign games quickly, they were never intended to be used for tournament play. That said, Ein Ritter Spiel specifically mentions using those rules for tournament play, so certainly some thought was put into the possibility. As cited in the rules, they are good for tournaments because decisive conclusions are reached pretty quickly, so a player can play several games in a round, rather than just a single game. This allows more player game time even if they are knocked out of the earlier rounds.
These rules rate 2 out of 5 in Tournament Tight™ Rules. Ein Ritter Spiel rates 3 out of 5.
Solo Suitability – do the rules have elements conducive to solo play?
There are no hidden elements to the game so that alone usually grants the rules high solitaire suitability. However, just as with Chess, these rules depend more upon the player planning several moves in advance. Unless you come up with a system for "programming" one or both of the sides, enemy plans will be easily "discovered" as soon as the player switches sides!
These rules rate 2 out of 5 in Solo Suitability.
Component Quality – are the components provided made with quality?
This is a new rating, meant primarily for board games, which addresses the quality of the physical components.
These rules only come printed. My copy of Jabberwocky looks as if it were copied on a copier set at 25% reduction, so the margins are wide and the print is very small. You cannot read it in a very poor light. The printing on Ritter is nice and clear with no issues. My copy of Fusilier includes a cardstock quick reference chart, listing the combat results. The print is bolder, but smaller than Ritter. Still very acceptable. Ein Ritter Spiel, which the author sent me for free (thank you Chris!), has not quick reference card, but has clear and clean print. It does not have a cardstock cover like all of the others. (If I recall correctly he stated that these were new and he wanted me to test them out, so they may not have been production copies.) All acceptable, if a little old school. Feels very much like the rules from the 1980's and 1990's. (Other than Ein Ritter Spiel they were all printed in the late 1990's.)
These rules rate 2 out of 5 in Component Quality. (Ein Ritter Spiel rates 3 out of 5.)
Although the author does not think they are particularly "realistic", I rather like the game they produce. They are very tweakable, especially in terms of when the game ends. Don't like a Break Point of 20%? Fine, double it. Want to differentiate French Napoleonic Guards a little better? Fine, let them maneuver as Light Infantry but still fight as Heavy Infantry. (Light Infantry has much better maneuverability, but fights worse. To reflect the better training of the French Guard, maneuvering as Lights and fighting as Heavies work well. Obviously other Guards would also benefit from this rule, like the British Guards.)